There is an old live oak tree, Quercus virginiana, growing outside of my studio. Miraculously, it grows in a narrow space and hosts an amazing diversity of birds. It has a trunk diameter at breast height (aka DBH) of 12 feet and a canopy spread of 50 or more feet. Its flaring trunk base has popped the sidewalk up on one side and self-truncates at the curb. It grows in a public right of way that's only 15 feet wide between street and sidewalk. This tree has been protected and taken care of and, as a result, has grown into a gorgeous tree that provides wildlife habitat. I'm lucky to see the animals that live in and visit this tree each day and I'm sharing some of my favorite moments in this post as the first in my "nature journal" series.
New Sounds. Last week, I noticed new bird sounds coming from the tree. I'm not a great orinthologist, so I'm not sure what these birds were, but I could distinguish their happy singing sounds from the blue jays, grackles, and wrens that regularly visit the tree. These birds were singing and feasting on the myriad insects living in the Live Oak tree's canopy. I have become accustomed to the Mourning Doves, a pair of which raised baby doves last spring, and their subdued coooo-ing calls. I also witnessed a fledgling baby blue jay on the ground underneath the tree last April. It was an adorable thing with a puffy profile of soft baby feather tufts. Baby birds on the ground are usually learning to feed on their own while being supervised from above by a parent. This is interesting to me: the way that a tree serves both as home for breeding and nesting and also as a protected training space for the adolescent birds.
Unfolding Drama. The most dramatic wildlife event I've observed in this tree was when I saw a red-tailed hawk swoop from above and extend its clawed feet to grab a squirrel from the tree canopy then fly away. It all happened in an instant and I just happened to be looking at the tree when it did. Another time, while standing under the tree at night, I sensed a presence and looked up. And there, on a low branch, was a Great Barred Owl sitting in silence, watching me with its yellow eyes, its ornate facial markings visible in the dark.
Tiny things. Sometimes I collect small branches that have fallen off the Live Oak and I take them into my studio to study them. The first time I did this, I noticed an arboreal ant climbing the wall. I watched intently as it made its way up to the ceiling and then walked in systematic circles across the ceiling in search of food. Finding none, she made her way back down the wall and onto the floor to repeat the circling path in hopes of finding food. She eventually followed her foraging path back home, to one of the branches that I had brought inside a few days earlier, and disappeared inside of a tiny hole in the branch. The arboreal ants are tree-dwellers and are fascinating little creatures that look like wingless wasps.
I'm impressed that one mature tree in an urban setting can support abundant wildlife in addition to providing shade, mitigating the urban heat island effect, and bringing beauty to our urban landscape. I value trees for these reasons and many more. Mature trees deserve our protection: they bring so much life and drama to the landscape and they take a lifetime to replace.